First released in 2012, Under Night In-Birth is arguably at its peak right now. Numerous updates and a groundswell of fan support have helped it earn a place on the EVO main stage, pushing the game even further into the spotlight. Though I’ve known of the series for quite some time, I finally decided to take the plunge with its latest release, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r]. What is it about this fighter that continues to draw players in many years later?
In spite of its recent success, the game does show its age in a number of ways. Some will appreciate its sprite-based graphics with an anime aesthetic, but more recent titles such as Guilty Gear Xrd, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Granblue Fantasy Versus have dramatically elevated the bar for how great anime fighters can look. Certainly not an ugly game by modern standards, but Under Night won’t wow anyone at this point strictly based on its looks.
Its presentation is also a bit confusing, as the vast majority of the game’s plot is presented as a lo-fi visual novel with static backgrounds, character models that only cycle between facial expressions, and massive walls of text. Oh yeah, and there’s no actual fighting in the visual novel mode. Just reading. The arcade mode has a bit of exposition between each fight, which is probably enough for most.
Where the game has maintained its position of strength is through gameplay. Much of its formula is based on foundational elements within the anime fighting game genre, such as chain combos, juggling, and air dashing. Under Night tweaks some of the parameters and adds a few twists of its own to make it feel very different from others in the genre.
For example, chain combos in anime games are governed by a light > medium > heavy progression. In Under Night, those moves can be strung together in any order. Having this option gives players more ways to connect moves, apply pressure, or create safe block strings. Between this and the game’s generous juggle properties, it feels like every character gives players a lot of room for creativity.
Another key differentiator between it and other anime games is the Assault system. Using towards and the D button (actual button will depend on what console you’re playing on), your character will short hop forward in an arching trajectory. You can also perform this move in the air for what sort of works like an air dash. However, characters move in an arc instead of dashing parallel to the ground. Having this in place minimizes the amount of possible air combos, instant overheads, and insane movement that is synonymous with the anime sub-genre. The de-emphasis on air dashing makes for a game with a bit more of an emphasis on grounded combat and footsies.
The game’s most unique mechanic is its GRD system. Represented on screen with a single meter shared by both players and a constantly resetting timer, players are rewarded with an assortment of boosts and access to key techniques through aggressive play. However, it’s also possible to temporarily disable your opponent’s access to the GRD, which also cuts off their ability to air dash. Managing the tug-of-war that is the GRD system becomes a battle-within-the-battle. Entry-level players can probably get by without paying any mind to it, but it can make a tremendous difference for those who take advantage.
As icing on the cake, the characters are uniquely designed to play into the overall framework of combat. Akatsuki’s design largely mimics Ryu from Street Fighter. However, he has this overhead chop that hits grounded opponents and can be used to extend combos considerably. Byakuya fights with Iron Spider like mechanical arms that give him crazy reach and allow him to create web traps. Nanase can create a revving pinwheel projectile that rolls along the ground behind her, giving her added pressure and a cool combo extender. Still have a ton to explore, but I look forward trying them all in-depth.
Put it all together, you get a complex and deeply-rewarding fighting game that feels quite different from its competition. I really dig it for being a bit more grounded and having a greater emphasis on footsies while still giving players lots of room for combo creativity. Wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one for genre newbies, but it does have an extensive tutorial and tons of combos within its mission mode to get players up to speed.
I want to play a lot more of it, but its online play makes it more difficult than I would have hoped. Built on a delay-based netcode framework presumably created at the time of the game’s original release in 2013, every match I played was compromised by bad online stability. It’s not entirely unplayable, but you won’t get anything that comes close to simulating local play. One of the worst online experiences I’ve had in a fighting game for quite some time.
Overall, I’m glad to finally cross Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] from my bucket list. Though the game does show its age in a number of ways and the subpar online might be a dealbreaker for many, its particular brand of anime fighting action is unique and deeply rewarding. For fighting game players who are willing to dig deep for something different, this might be just the ticket.
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